Even after two second-place finishes and a day in the yellow jersey, the upstart SmartStop US Continental team is still fighting for respect at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. A bit of argy-bargy directed at race leader Jure Kocjan in the final sprint Wednesday during stage 3 raised the hackles of Kocjan, along with directors Michael Creed and Gord Fraser.
After riding into the yellow jersey with podium finishes on stages 1 and 2, Kocjan was trying for another top placing when several riders squeezed him out of position as the peloton negotiated the 3.6km finishing circuits at the Miller Motorsports Park. Kocjan was fighting for the wheel of stage 1 winner Moreno Hofland (Belkin) on the last lap when things started going south.
“[Belkin is] smart, and they were afraid of me because if I had been on [Hofland's] wheel the first day I could have won the stage,” explained Kocjan, who rode for Euskaltel-Euskadi last year. “So they put one of his guys behind him so that he would have more space in the sprint. That guy didn't let me in. In the last kilometers I didn't want to crash him, so I needed to brake a few times, and the BMC guys, they were coming. I don't know what they are actually doing there. They don't have a pure sprinter and they're fighting for fifth, sixth place. They are risking so much. I think they should look for a climbing stage.”
While Hofland won the stage, Kocjan avoided any incidents and finished sixth, keeping his overall lead and guaranteeing at least one more day in yellow for his team. SmartStop was obviously happy with the result, but the directors weren't pleased with what they viewed as a lack of respect for the race leader.
“He got pinched at a kilometer to go,” said assistant director Gord Fraser. “I think the yellow jersey deserved a little more space than that, so I had a little chat with the other teams. I think the way we race warrants a bit of respect, and I just let them know that.”
Creed said his team would continue to be a thorn in the side of some of the more prominent, larger-budget teams at the race.
“Some of the [WorldTour] guys are really, really cool to teams like ours,” Creed said. “Belkin, Garmin – and I'm sure I'm leaving others out – have been really, really nice and appreciative and supportive of us while we're here. But it sounds like there's a couple guys who really don't appreciate it. When one guy's salary is our entire budget, I'm glad that we can annoy him. And we're going to keep doing it.
“I'm going to have car one [in the race caravan] for two days in a row,” Creed continued. “And maybe to some particular [WorldTour] guy it may be small time, but for us it's as big as it gets, so I'll take it.”
Despite the perceived slight in Wednesday's finale, SmartStop has exceeded expectations so far this week in Utah. Kocjan's performance and overall race lead marks one of the rare times when a Continental rider has earned the leader's jersey in any of the big North American UCI races. Add in Travis McCabe's National Racing Calendar lead and Eric Marcotte's national championship jersey, and Creed is more than satisfied with the revamped team's results during his first year as director.
“I built the team off a philosophy, and I went with that philosophy to the death,” Creed said. “I fought for it, and it's really paying off. I couldn't be happier. I was joking with the mechanic and soignie that if we won the stage today I would just leave the keys and the credit card in the car door and leave. It can't get any better, and I don't want the rest of the year to be a mediocre disappointment.”
Thursday's stage, which finishes at the top of Powder Mountain, could very likely be Kocjan's last day in yellow. The rest of the team worked hard to control the race on Wednesday, and they expended a lot of energy, but Creed said the team has a few more options in the coming days.
“Definitely we're probably a little long in the tooth now, so we'll see,” he said. “We have Rob [Britton], and he's going pretty good. Julian [Kyer] did a little bit of work today, so he'll be tired. Our other climber did a bit of work today, so they'll all be tired. But maybe we'll feature in some early breaks. Maybe Rob has a good ride, or one of our climbers will have a good ride. They didn't have a good first climbing day, so unfortunately we had to put them on the front today. That's how cycling works, but who knows, maybe they come around and we have another magic trick.”